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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Displacing Sense of Place
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Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Displacing Sense of Place

Few things in Alexandria come across with such clarity as the unfortunate demise of the Old and Historic District last Wednesday (June 19) at the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) Public Hearing. In one final swoop, the BAR jettisoned the entire concept of the Historic District by approving a structure that ran as fast as it could from the historic precepts that have guided the district since its inception. As Mr. Ed Braswell warned the City Council many years ago, instead of a Preservation Board, the city has ended up with an arts commission.

Unfortunately, the BAR and staff adored the building for its many deliberate incongruences, using the numerous previously approved design variances to justify a de facto complete repudiation of the Historic District ordinance. This is a very sad moment indeed, but it has occurred because the city and some residents desire this, or at least allowed it to happen by their silence. However, It is important to understand exactly what was lost.

While most residents can be forgiven for thinking that Old Town has always been so iconic, it wasn’t always the case. The Old Town area had fallen into such disrepair that in 1960, the city came up with a proposal to raze nearly 100 percent of Old Town via urban renewal; to be precise, 24 city blocks.

This proposal was fought vociferously, but it took over 10 years and a lawsuit to limit the damage to six city blocks. During all this, the Conference of Mayors had sponsored a report on Historic Preservation that indicated that a feeling of restlessness experienced by the country was associated with the postwar building boom and a high mobility rate. The report indicated that the Preservation Movement could assuage that restless feeling and could provide American society with "a sense of orientation" by using structures and objects of the past to establish values of time and place. This report proved to be influential, since the National Historic Act of 1966 incorporated many of its ideas, including the specific charge to create a sense of orientation for Americans through the Preservation Movement, into Federal law. In essence, placing the emphasis of Historic Preservation in the Federal law rested in the importance of creating a sense of place.

In a groundbreaking article on preservation and a sense of orientation for American cities, Robin Elisabeth Datel points out the following: “The sense of orientation inspiring present-day efforts at historic preservation differs from the motivations of earlier preservationists, whose main lessons were patriotism and a respect for the accomplishments of their forebears. In pursuit of goals of stability, identity, and environmental control, current preservationists follow four imperatives: to retain diverse elements of the past, to perpetuate the distinctive identities of places, to involve amateurs in landscape care, and to practice a conservative approach to environmental change."

Rather than creating a historic Building Code, the establishment of an Old Town Historic District not only created a strong sense of place, but it did so by conforming the entire district to certain standards, as opposed to just one building at a time. What is needed in this situation is architectural design that relates to its context and region.

Nine years ago, I warned that this policy was very much up in the air because of a significant push to create a far greater distinction between historic buildings and those that are deemed not historic. This begs several questions; first, what is historic? second, why did we create districts in the first place; and third, what will happen to the sense of place?

The answer to these questions is related to a larger question of what constitutes an evolutionary road map that successful cities ought to follow. Here, there is general consensus as to the answer, which is this: If you can feel where in the world you are by the architecture, it works.

However, what is historic is at the discretion of the interpretive authorities, which ultimately means the City Council. If you recall, in the urban renewal push where the city wanted to destroy 24 city blocks, apparently no buildings were "historic enough" to be saved in the face of short-term "opportunities." Although that particular tear-down time is viewed today as a major mistake by the city, it is too late.

Why did Old Town want to protect the district instead of individual "historic houses"? First, the report from the conference of Mayors and the Federal law itself, both strongly urged the creation of a sense of place, and they recommended the formation of districts to accomplish that. The other reason is that it is a lot easier to maintain a historic district. Historic preservation and the creation of sense of place worked extremely well in Old Town, but it is only as viable as the willingness of everyone to partake in preservation, and there have been powerful forces working very hard to undermine that effort.

Ultimately, it is up to the residents, who will decide by the actions they take. The structure in question is by the waterfront, which (aside from the Carr Hotel) has been approved by the city for ubiquitous structures that evoke a connection to anywhere (and consequently nowhere). Through these decisions, the BAR and the city staff is well on its way to eliminating the Old Town Alexandria sense of place and Historic connection.

Poul Hertel

Alexandria